Turkey keeps Syrian border closed but lets refugees flee to EU

Waves of refugees are heading toward the European Union (EU) border after Turkey said late on Thursday it would not stop them from reaching Europe. 

However, its borders to Syria’s Idlib province where thousands are attempting to flee the fighting that is raging there are still closed.

Turkey’s move to allow refugees to head to the EU came after at least 33 Turkish troops were killed in Idlib on Thursday in a deadly attack by Russia-backed Syrian government forces.

Turkey has held back border guards on land and sea. However, only a few were able to cross into the EU countries of Greece and Bulgaria by land, while some boats were able to arrive at Greek islands without intervention from Turkish coast guards.

Turkish border guards in Edirne told people to take boats to cross the Evros River, instead of trying to cross on land, a human right activist alleged on his Twitter account.

Hundreds of refugees, who want to make for the EU on land, have been reportedly taken by buses to Edirne, Turkey’s western province bordering Greece and Bulgaria, with many now waiting in the buffer zone between the Turkish and Greek border gates.

Tanju Ozcan, the Republican People’s Party mayor of Turkey’s western province of Bolu, announced on Friday that the municipality would lay on buses for the refugees in Bolu who wanted to get to the Greek border.

Greece and Bulgaria have deployed reinforcements in an attempt to prevent people from entering, with Greek police reportedly using tear gas.

Bulgaria’s Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying on Friday that 1000 troops and military equipment were ready to be deployed to its border with Turkey.

According to a report by Greek Kathimerini, barbed wire has been laid along the banks of the Evros River to ensure that every centimeter of the frontier is guarded.

Meanwhile, Turkey has not opened the gates in the Syrian border for people trying to flee the war-torn region.

There have been allegations that some who tried to make it to Turkey with their families were beaten and humiliated by the Turkish officials before they were detained and deported back to Syria.

Turkey, which hosts 3.7 million Syrian refugees, made a deal with the EU to step up efforts to halt the flow of refugees.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to open the gates, unless Turkey gets more international support in the Syrian conflict, referring to a new influx of refugees trying to flee northern Syria due to escalating attacks by Syrian regime forces there.

The Syrian regime forces, backed by Russia and Iran, have been pressing an assault against the last rebel stronghold since April 2019, stepping up their attacks in December.

“The regime has taken advantage of the international silence in the face of its crimes for years,” Fahrettin Altun, the head of Turkey’s presidential communications department, told Al Jazeera on Friday.

However, the EU has received “reassurances” from the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu that Ankara would stick to its side of the 2016 deal restricting migrant flows to Europe, EU foreign policy high representative Josep Borrell said on the same day.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said “no illegal entries into Greece will be tolerated”, while Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said he had “urgently deployed” the army, national guard and border police to respond to the situation and to “beat off a possible migrant influx”.

Turkish authorities have called for the international community to protect the one million Syrians fleeing the fighting in Idlib from “genocide” by imposing a no-fly zone.

According to the United Nations (UN), at least 465 civilians, including 145 children, have been killed in Idlib since December. Further, with the latest displacement, an already dire humanitarian situation in the makeshift camps near the Turkish border has been deteriorating.

According to a 2018 deal between Russia and Turkey, Turkey set up twelve military outposts to create “de-confliction” zones in Syria.

Turkey argues that it has been trying to protect the civilians through its military observation posts in the region, while the trio – Syria, Russia, and Iran – claim that Ankara has been backing the rebel fighters trying to stop the Syrian offensive.

Neither the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia or the rebels backed by Turkey, were signatories to the 2018 agreement.

Greece tightens border with Turkey as migrants approach

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